It seems fitting to use, or rather "mis-use," the term Rashomon as a reference to the postmodernist deconstruction of truth. When filmmaker, Kurosawa, produced the 1950's film of the same title, he obscured the literary genius of Ryunosuke Akutagawa while making his works available to a wider non-Japanese audience. Akutagawa's (1892-1927) short story collection, Rashomon and Other Stories, was first translated into English in 1952. In it, there were included two stories, one titled, "Rashomon" and the other, "In a Grove." It was the latter that created the narrative framework for the film.
"In a Grove" contains the story of a death—at least that much can be agreed upon. A man and his wife, traveling through a forest grove, encounter a bandit. This encounter ultimately leaves the man dead, either by his own hand, his wife's or the bandit's. Akutagawa presents this core narrative through seven voices, each offering a different and conflicting first person account of the event. These multiple voices are never resolved and the reader is left questioning which account is "true."
In the same collection of stories, Akutagawa reveals in the story "Rashomon," much about life in feudal Japan. Rashomon was a gate in Kyoto, once grand and majestic, now dilapidated and a place frequented by beggars and other misfortunates, some who breathe their last breath at that site. Once such soul finds himself at the gate during a torrential rainstorm having just been released from his position as a servant. Jobless, homeless, he seeks refuge at Rashomon and contemplates his dismal future. As he considers turning to a life of crime, he encounters a wretch of a woman. Poor, filthy, ugly—she frequents this place seeking dead bodies from whose heads she cuts hair to be sold and made into wigs. He watches her begin to cut the hair of a dead woman. Disgusted by this, the servant is made to see that his decision to become a thief would reduce him to that same level or worse—a revelation that allows him to experience a moment of grace. But this grace is fleeting when the woman attempts to justify her act by sharing how despicable her victim was. With this, she creates a mirrored invitation for the servant, for he uses her justification as an imperative for him to steal, in turn, from her.
The film conflates these two tales (and hints of the other stories) into one. Its acclaim at international film festivals upon its release was seen, in part, due to its non-linear, non-rational challenge to American/Western sensibilities. In the film version, the story of the murder in the forest is discussed by a priest and a key witness who recount the multiple versions that were retold at the trial. This meta-level retelling occurs as a sort of rapprochement where Kurosawa's witness is brought together from two figures, one from each of these tales (the servant and the woodcutter). The Gate becomes the site for telling of the tales of the murder and trial as well as the Woodcutter/Servant's confrontation with questions of truth and moral choice.
Those unfamiliar with the movie's origins are left with what appears to be a single story. Thus, the term Rashomon has come to mean that truth has many voices, all relative, subjective and open to deconstruction. A full reading of Akutagawa's works, however, provides a thicker description, where Rashomon reveals, not only the subjectivity of truth, but also the effects of its epistemic nature.